The Hero's Journey Beyond


The heart of this essay should be a comparison of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, but you should also draw upon parallel material, such as Egyptian or Norse myth, tales of Creation, etc. There are a number of possible approaches, but you should choose a well-defined theme or a particular aspect of the hero's quest and stick to it.

Try to derive some deeper perspective: what does the comparison suggest about the origins of such tales in primitive culture or the 'lesson' of heroic labors for the ancient audience who kept so lively an interest. That is, essentially: What is the inspiration—what makes these stories so appealing over the millennia?

            Some suggested topics:


1) Consider the various stories in which the hero butchers the forbidden beast: Humbaba and Polyphemus, the Bull of Heaven and the Cattle of the Sun, etc. On one level this is the conquest of something powerful beyond this world, brings power, fame, or survival. But it is also violation of the sacred. In each case what is the cost? And does the hero gain new knowledge from the consequences? Further comparison may come from the tales of butchered gods in Creation epics; the fate Bata; or Sigurd slaying Fafnir (Volsunga Saga).


2) Compare the heros’ encounters with the dead: Odysseus quest for Teiresias,  Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld, as well as the search for Utnapishtim (as quest for a realm beyond this life). What is fundamentally similar about these visions? Is there something fundamentally different?  Again, what does the hero learn, especially as revealed in his own words and reactions.


3) Beloved of the goddess: Compare Odysseus’ relations with Circe and Calypso (perhaps contrasting Penelope as idealized wife) with Gilgamesh the beloved of Ishtar and 'first with the bride' (exercising his right to consummate). In both sequences there is a powerful but puzzling theme of sexual dominance/sexual property. Include other encounters with powerful female figures (Bata’s misalliances; Sigurd and Brunhild)


4)   Mythic Landscape: Compare the geography of this world (and the next) in two or more traditions, esp.  as revealed in the journeys of the heros. What does this landscape, largely imaginary, tell us about the way the ancient audience saw the world and their place in it?


5) Covenant and Contest:  Consider the tales involving some form of bargain or ordeal (esp. agreement to settle a dispute by the outcome of  a contest). In many cases the bargain fails: Hector’s proposal to Achilles; the combat of Paris and Menelaus in Iliad 2; Eurymachus’ offer to pay off Odysseus for the suitors’  offense. Gilgamesh exploits his powers as lord of Uruk (a kind of contractual right); fails the test of the loaves (to prove worthy of immortality); and in some ways the making of Enkidu is seen as a contest for Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s death is punishment for breaking his obligation to Ishtar(?); Gilgamesh must repay the damage to Urshanabi to pay for his voyage.  The Norse material is full of covenants (and you may use a few for perspective). What do these stories tell us about the ancient view of rights and obligation—how/to what extent are they created by willing decisions, how much by other factors (natural order, inherited duties, gods’ demands, etc.). For instance, Achilles’ reaction (and Odysseus’) might suggest that the Greeks of that time saw no obligation to accept a fair and humane offer. Gilgamesh seems to have no sense of obligation to serve the people he exploits or honor the goddess he has ritually wed.


Important reminder on Method: 


Be sure to justify your judgment from key passages in our texts (or other sources) The structure of your essay should be purposeful and self-evident.


(1) Begin with a 'thesis-statement,' essentially defining your theme and indicating how it will be developed through a discussion of key passages.


(2) In systematic fashion proceed to interpret the passages most relevant to your theme. Each paragraph should be clearly focused upon the way the passage relates to the theme. Quote key words or phrases, but do not use block quotes (more than 2-3 lines). Then interpret, don't just summarize.


Again, avoid ‘I think, I believe’, etc. (unless you are explaining a particularly personal insight); stick with what “the text shows/suggests,” what “the hero’s reaction reveals” about his motives and understanding.


(3) And of course give me a concluding paragraph: tie together the implications. Why is this theme so powerfully important for the mythmakers? Your essay should be, roughly 4-5 pages, typed or computer print-out, with pages numbered. Stapled or paper-clipped. No need for footnotes or bibliography (cite by abbreviated title and page or line numbers).


[Check list of editing marks]